Delhi’s Baolis

Local painter 22 year old Sheikh Nazir Udin washes himself in the water of the Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli, its one of the few baolis in Delhi still in use by local people

After doing a guided walk on some of Delhi’s ancient baolis (stepwells) I decided to explore more of them. I’d been living in the city for 5 years and though I knew of one in Nizamuddin near where I live, I had no idea there were so many and that they were so beautiful. I was particularly astonished to find one hidden so close to Delhi’s high-rise financial district, Connaught Place, presenting a classic collision of old and new. At the turn of the last century Delhi had more than 100 baolis, now many of them have caved in or dried up owing to the declining water table as this was what kept them full rather than rainfall.  If you look at pictures from the 70′s they used to be almost full with water. The fact that most are dry now is indicative of India’s burgeoning city populations and the relentless demand for water, much of it siphoned directly from the water table through illegal boreholes by the populace. This in turn is indicative of the Indian governments failure to provide sufficient water to its own people. Currently their number has shrunk to about 15 according to the ASI (Archaological Survey of India) and sadly today most are neglected, overlooked or locked to prevent accidental drownings. Still the ones that remain are as magical as they are majestic and frequented now mostly by occasional tour groups, school children, lovers, pilgrims and others seeking a rare place of peace amid Delhi’s madding crowds.

Baolis are examples of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. Most common in western India, they may also be found in the other more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan.The majority of surviving stepwells originally also served a leisure purpose because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat. Stepwells also served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Usually, women were more associated with these wells because they were the ones who collected the water and it was they who prayed and offered gifts to the goddess of the well for her blessings. This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features often associated with dwellings, it also ensured their survival as monuments. Stepwells usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were often carved profusely with elaborate detail and became cool, quiet retreats during the hot summers. The National published a selection of images from this story in their Review (hard copy) and on their National View blog here.

Men from a small group of caretakers sit by a fire in the morning by Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli, they look after the tombs of Muslim saints next to the baoli

Sheikh Nazir Udin descends the steps of the Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli to bathe

Sheikh Nazir Udin dives into the water to rinse himself while bathing at the Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli

Sameena Khan sits in quiet contemplation on the steps of the Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli

School children ascend the steps of Agrasen ki Baoli. Hidden close to Delhi’s financial district it presents a jarring collision of ancient and modern. Photographs from the 1970′s show it full of water.

A group of girls pose for pictures at the Agrasen ki Baoli which is a popular hang-out spot

Pigeons fly through a sunbeam in the well-shaft of the Agrasen ki Baoli in New Delhi as bats roost above them on the underside of the domed roof

A man is bathed by a woman as another looks on, at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli which is the only one in Delhi to be fed by springs

Salim a local Nizamuddin resident enjoys the water at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli

The Red Fort’s baoli is 14th century, significantly pre-dating the fort itself which is 17th century. It has an unusual design that features an octagonal well-shaft, two-stories and two sets of steps leading down, one from the north and one from the west. It was used at times as a prison by the British and before them the Mughals

The steps on the North side of the baoli at the Red Fort in New Delhi

The beautiful circular baoli at Feroz Shah Kotla teams with large fish

A man relaxes at dusk beside the Hauz Khas lake at Hauz Khas village, though not strictly a baoli its a water body very popular with Delhi-ites

Method: all natural light, Nikon D700, D3s and Canon S90

9 thoughts on “Delhi’s Baolis”

  1. Hey Simon,

    This are hidden jewels, unearthed and beautifully depicted in your pictures! Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers!
    Priti

  2. Simon,
    Stunning photographs (as always)and a rare glimpse into an almost ‘covered over’ past.
    Good job that the health and safety culture has not reached India yet or they would be closed off for ever!!

  3. Hi Simon
    These are absolutely fascinating and beautiful places, perhaps all the more so for being practically deserted. They must have come from tremendous wealth judging by the workmanship. Thank you for sharing these lovely images: it makes me want to come and see them for myself!
    Sarah

  4. Thanks for all the appreciation everyone. Carmen: yes indeed and in fact this is pretty clean water in comparison to the Yamuna as it passes by Delhi! Gordon: well there is some Health & Safety in the fact that several of the baolis are kept locked due to tragic accidental child drownings, – notably the one in Feroz Shah Kotla. The Red Fort and Purana Qila baolis are also locked.

  5. B’ful pics Simon. It reminds me of the ones we have in my hometown. There is a baoli in Lucknow’s Imambara as well but water has been drained out for some inexplicable reason, probably to prevent accidents. Do visit, if possible.

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